By James Cullingham
It was a psychotropic June evening half a century ago. The superb British band Traffic led by Stevie Winwood played Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good.’ The sound of Chris Wood’s flute mingled with a marijuana haze as thousands sat or danced entranced on what was usually the Toronto Argonauts’s home field at CNE Stadium in Toronto.
The Festival Express got underway on June 27 & 28 1970 when the vision of ace promoter Ken Walker to hire acts including Eric Andersen, The Band, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Robert Charlebois, The Grateful Dead, Ian & Sylvia and The Great Speckled Bird, Janis Joplin, Mashmakan, Mountain and Buddy Guy had come to fruition. The tour started in Toronto and then went on by special CN train festooned with FESTIVAL EXPRESS to shows in Winnipeg and Calgary.
I was 16 years old and it was an unforgettable experience that unbeknownst to me at the time would go on and on for the next 30 years. Let me be clear about one thing: I bought a ticket – $14 to see some of my favourite musicians in the world play over two days in glorious sunny weather.
The Festival was famously the subject of protests in Toronto. Thousands stormed the CNE gates demanding that the music be free. Hippie politics and anti-Vietnam War sentiment were rife in Toronto. It was less than two months after student protesters were shot dead at Kent State University in Ohio. Activists centered around Rochdale, Toronto’s alternative experimental cooperative college, targeted the music industry demanding that the shows go on for free.
They didn’t know what they were getting into in their confrontation with Ken Walker. The scion of a Toronto jewelry concern, Walker was a genius music promoter and a hard case. He had arranged for John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Eric Clapton to play together at the 1969 Toronto Rock and Roll Revival. Walker did not take the Festival Express protests lightly. He shoved one Toronto protester down a flight of stairs and punched Calgary Mayor Rod Sykes in the face when Sykes demanded that the kids of Calgary get into the show there for free.
The Festival Express saga is told with verve in an eponymous documentary film released in 2003. Bob Smeaton directed, Gavin Poolman and John Trapman produced the film. I worked on it as story consultant and appear in it. The film came about after Garth Douglas, who was eventually an executive producer on the film, and I were led to a garage in the Rosedale neighbourhood of Toronto in about 1995 where we discovered dozens of 16mm work print cans labelled “Joplin,” The Band,” “Traffic,” “Grateful Dead”… We couldn’t believe our eyes, particularly when we started watching the footage on a Steenbeck flatbed editing machine in my Tamarack Productions office.
Footage from the concerts produced by Gavin’s father Willem Poolman had gone missing for 25 years after a tortuous saga of litigation and theft. The protests had destroyed the prospect of profit for the concerts and sent out an aura of bad publicity surrounding the whole affair. A film about the 1969 Woodstock Festival was already in the works. The Festival Express film was a casualty in the aftermath of the concerts. But as Garth Douglas and I discovered, the footage was to die for.
From my perspective Janis Joplin’s performances are the best ever filmed. When the documentary premiered at the Toronto Film Festival the audience rose to its feet applauding and hollering after Joplin’s performance of “Cry Baby” – right then and there during the screening as if they had watched Janis on stage.
Charming folk jams featuring Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead and Sylvia Tyson, an outrageous stop at a liquor store in Saskatoon when the train ran out of booze en route to Calgary, a wondrous drunken jam featuring Rick Danko of The Band, Joplin and Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead are manna from documentary heaven.
As Weir recounted decades after the fact, “Most of us had done LSD. This was our introduction to alcohol. This was a new experience for most of us and it worked just fine.” After someone added jell caps of LSD into an oversized bottle of Canadian Club, Weir said, “we achieved lift off.”
In addition to Janis Joplin, the film captures vintage stage performances by The Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Grateful Dead and Buddy Guy who cunningly played “Money (that’s what I want.”)
As a concert attendee, I recall that Robert Charlebois performed sensationally in Toronto. Years later when I interviewed Rick Danko about his Festival Express experience, Danko spoke admiringly about Charlebois and recalled what he learned listening to Charlebois, particularly the inclusion of a fiddle player in an electric rock band.
I have a tinge of sadness in remembering how relevant and vital Québécois music sounded to young Torontonians in 1970, decades before we retreated into the comfortable linguistic solitudes of twenty-first century Canada. The tour had been slated to kick off in Montréal, but that show was cancelled at the last minute when then mayor Jean Drapeau was appalled by the prospect of stoned music fans crowding his city on June 24, la Fête Nationale.
Finally, lest we forget, The Grateful Dead was astonishingly capable and diverse on stage. That LSD infused weekend in Toronto was my first sight of the band in concert (I would then see them about twenty more times in the years that followed.) Garcia was on stage for several hours. He played pedal steel guitar with The New Riders of The Purple Sage, played acoustic numbers with his band members and sang lead vocals and guitar in a danceable and musically probing electric set. The band also played an impromptu free concert outside CNE stadium in Coronation Park beside Lake Ontario to help quell the Toronto protest. The Grateful Dead were galvanizing in the concerts and, once aboard the train, as the footage shows, Garcia was a mesmerizing exponent of musical styles as the train careened across Canada.
The Festival Express was an epochal moment in Canadian music. As we discovered making the film, the musicians considered it a highlight of their careers. As a fan, it treated me to live performances that remain with me to this day.
Credit to the fallen who made the whole trip possible. Janis Joplin died months after her July 4, 1970 performance in Calgary. Garcia succumbed in 1995 after a multi-faceted and prolific career. One of the film’s executive producers Willem Poolman, the man with the magic garage, died in 2009. The brilliant, inimitable and irascible Ken Walker has passed on. As a music fan and chronicler, Ken Walker gave me the education of a lifetime. As a journalist and filmmaker, Walker was an irresistible subject. No one but Ken Walker has ever had me wandering around Toronto with several thousands of dollars in cash payment at the ready as I conducted him to an interview location.
Long live The Festival Express! Music fans crank up your stereos and light up your digital data. Historians start your engines.
James Cullingham is a filmmaker, historian and journalist. He has made film documentaries about the composer/guitarist John Fahey, the saxophonist and impresario Jim Galloway, and a feature radio documentary about the fans of The Grateful Dead. He is an adjunct graduate faculty member of Canadian and Indigenous Studies at Trent University and president of Tamarack Productions in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough, ON.)